Episode 101 – Gottschalk & Adalbert

Click here for links to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other listening platforms
Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicCastBoxOvercastPlayer.fmPodcast AddictGoogle PodcastsPocketCasts

This week we will follow the history of two men who could not be more different. On one side is Gottschalk, leader of the pagan Abodrites, who first comes to prominence as a brutal raider killing Saxons all across Holstein in revenge for his father’s killing. The other is Adalbert, son of a count, brother of the count palatinate of Saxony, friend and confidant of Henry III, a man who refused the offer of becoming pope for his ambition to convert all of Scandinavia and the Baltic. These two men formed an alliance against the Saxon magnates in general and the Billungs, dukes of Saxony in particular.

It is a story of greed and violence, of Christian conversion and attempts to break out of strategic gridlock…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 101 – Gottschalk and Adalbert

This week we will follow the history of two men who could not be more different. On one side is Gottschalk, leader of the pagan Abodrites, who first comes to prominence as a brutal raider killing Saxons all across Holstein in revenge for his father’s killing. The other is Adalbert, son of a count, brother of the count palatinate of Saxony, friend and confidant of Henry III, a man who refused the offer of becoming pope for his ambition to convert all of Scandinavia and the Baltic. These two men formed an alliance against the Saxon magnates in general and the Billungs, dukes of Saxony in particular.

It is a story of greed and violence, of Christian conversion and attempts to break out of strategic gridlock…

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to J. Lawton, Tracy J and Roger who have already signed up. And special thanks to Paul Huehnermund whose generosity and regular support on Twitter is much appreciated.

Last week we did a recap of the Saxon war that pitted the emperor Henry IV against the Saxon magnates, led by Otto von Northeim. This story you may remember from Season 2 and we will get on to the follow-on of it. But before we do that, I want to talk about the second strain in our narrative, the fate of the Wends, the Slavic peoples who live between the Elbe and Oder river, specifically their federations, the Abodrites and the Lutizi.

We have met the Abodrites before. They are a federation of several Slavic tribes who live in the March of the Billungs, across modern day Holstein and Mecklenburg. They had played a leading role in the great Slav uprising when their leader Mistivoj brought his troops up to and then through the gates of Hamburg, burning the city and all its wooden churches. According to the chronicles of Helmond of Bosau the leadership of the Abodrites, including Mistivoj had accepted Christianity but were provoked into revolt by the oppressive tributes the Billungs extracted as well as their refusal to accept them as their equals and marry their daughters to them as they had done with the Poles.

After the uprising of 983 Mistivoj seems to have returned to at least nominal Christianity. We do know that his son and successor, Udo was officially Christian, though the chronicler Helmond of Bosau describes him as lax in his religious devotion. Honestly, I can’t blame him.

Udo’s son was Gottschalk, born sometime between the year 1000 and 1015. Young Gottschalk was brought up in a monastery in Luneburg. We do not know what role the academic reputation of this establishment played in Udo’s decision to hand over his oldest son to preceptors in the hometown of the occupying duke of Saxony. 

In 1028 or 1031 Gottschalk’s father was stabbed in the back by a Saxon in his retinue. Gottschalk flees from his monastery, sheds Christianity and takes over his father’s job, and goes out for revenge. For years he devastates what is today Holstein so that in the end only the garrisons in Itzehoe and Boeckelnburg remain standing. In the end he is captured by the duke of Saxony. The duke releases him after the two men had found an agreement. What the content of that was is unclear, but most likely a combination of a payment and promise to go into exile. Gottschalk went to Denmark and joined king Knut in his endeavour to gain the crown of England. He stayed in Denmark for almost 15 years and got involved in the various wars of succession that followed the death of the great Knut. It is during this period that the Abodrites show up on the Danish border. What exactly they were doing there is unclear. Some argue they were on migration, others that they had taken part in the wars of succession in Denmark. In what appears to have been an exceptionally brutal battle, the Slavs are beaten and allegedly 15,000 Abodrites lay dead on the field. Their leader, Ratibor fell in battle and his seven sons were caught to perish in Danish captivity. King Magnus of Norway and Denmark son of Saint Olaf wielded his father’s battle axe, curiously named Hel after the Nordic goddess of death…

Nominally the Abodrites had been allied with Sweyn Estridsson, one of the various claimants for the Danish throne, which makes it likely that Gottschalk was involved in this affair. We hear later that he married a daughter of Sweyn Estridsson, by now king of Denmark.

By 1047 he is definitely back in the land of the Abodrites where, probably with the help of his father-in-law, he had regained his position as the leader of the federation.

By now Gottschalk had converted back to Christianity. Not just that, he had become a strong promoter of the Christian faith. He founded monasteries in all the major towns, allowed new bishoprics in Mecklenburg and Ratzeburg to be erected until the whole land was full of churches and the churches full of priests as the Adam von Bremen noticed enthusiastically.

Which begs the question why he had done so? Sure Canute and his court were Christians, and they would probably have demanded nominal adherence to the new religion, as did Magnus and Sweyn Estridsson. But in a world where the saintly king of Norway calls his battle-ax Hel, this could only have been a thin veneer of Christianity. Gottschalk’s activity once he is back in charge is different. He means it. He is going to great length to convert his people. Chroniclers report that he joined the missionaries and translated the sermon into their language.

If you leave aside the possibility of a Damascus moment experienced in a Saxon prison cell, there might be another explanation. Imagine you are a pagan Slavic rule,r and you look at your list of long term options. Well, it isn’t a very long list.

Option 1 is to keep doing what you are doing which means at regular intervals the local margrave will come round and demand an outrageous amount in tribute. When you refuse, the margrave will come back with an army, devastate your land, steal everything that isn’t nailed down and take your women and children away as slaves. Or you can accept the tribute which requires you to gathe everything that isn’t nailed down yourself and hand it over.

Option 2 is to accept conversion. But that means you now have to pay the bishops and archbishops on top of the margrave. And even then you may find that the local rulers find ways to provoke you into fighting anyway. You remember grandpa Mistivoj who was called a dog by margrave Dietrich?

And then you look at Poland and realise things aren’t fair. The Poles had been pagan seventy years ago. Now look at them. There are churches everywhere, they have their own archbishop, their king had forced the old emperor Henry II to sign a humiliating peace agreement. And even though right now Poland is a mess, still their nobility is linked by marriage into the highest levels of the Saxon aristocracy, even the imperial family.

If you can set aside your religious scruples, that is where you want to get to. But how?

Just paying lip-service to the new gods is something the powerful Danes and Norwegians can afford, but that is not cutting the mustard out here in the Wendish lands. The solution has to be a close alliance with the one force that provides a counterweight to the Saxon magnates, the church, and most specifically the almighty archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, Adalbert.

Adalbert you may remember was a close ally of Henry III who saw his role in being the patriarch of the north, bringing Christianity to Scandinavia and all the shores of the Baltic Sea. Gottschalk is likely to have met Adalbert before he returned to his homeland since Adalbert had been a regular visitor to the Danish court. The return of Gottschalk may have been supported, if not even conceived by Adalbert.

Adalbert and Gottschalk worked closely together. The new bishoprics in Ratzeburg and Mecklenburg became part of the archdiocese of Hamburg and Adalbert put competent men into those positions, including a man called John who had come from Scotland where he had been bishop of Glasgow and possibly of Orkney. I mention him because he will reappear again a little later.

Tagging on to Adalbert looked like a winning move already in 1047. Adalbert was already hugely powerful at court. He had accompanied the emperor on his journey to Rome which included the famous council of Sutri where the emperor deposed three popes and replaced them with German bishops.  Adalbert was offered the job but refused claiming he was needed for missionary activity in the north. A good move since the man who took the job, Suitger, bishop of Bamberg, died within months from the unhealthy climate in Rome.

If not at court, Adalbert’s main area of operations was Scandinavia. Adam von Bremen describes regular interaction with the kings of Norway, of Sweden and of Denmark. This is a period of constant coming and going on the Scandinavian thrones, though more often than not the going party wasn’t moving under its own propulsion any more. Adalbert seems to have managed these political upheavals deftly and held on to his position as the leader of the Scandinavian church.

Now let us move on to the year 1056. Two things happen. One, the emperor Henry III dies and two, the Lutizi achieve a major success destroying the army of William, Margrave of the Northern March. The first is a major problem for Adalbert, since Henry III was his great sponsor and as always in a regime change, the old advisors are chucked out. The latter was a real issue for Gottschalk who was trying to prove that a former pagan Slavic tribe could become an integral part of the empire. Ah, and if you remember last episode it was also a problem for the boy-king Henry IV who was nearly killed over it.

Now the next thing we hear is that a year after their great success the Lutizi begin to fight amongst themselves. The Lutizi are not a tribe itself but a federation of several small tribes, namely the Rearii, Tollensi, Kessini and Circcipani. No, you do not need to remember those. The Kessini and Circipani fell out with the Redarii and Tollensi on the other. We do not know what exactly drove the disagreement. Some have argued that the Redarii had been a sort of elite amongst the Lutizi and this was basically a revolt from below. It could also have been a falling out over strategy now that they had beaten the empire and the throne was occupied by a child. Or it was some clever undercover work by Gottschalk and Adalbert.

All that is fact is that the two sides went at it hammer and tongs. Adam von Bremen tells us of three separate campaigns that always ended with a defeat for the Redarii. The Redarii in their distress went for help to the most motley of crews. They first ask Gottschalk, prince of the Abodrites, then they ask Sweyn Estridsson, king of the Danes and then duke Bernhard of Saxony. All three of them are happy to help. So happy they bring along a colossal force that easily overwhelms the Circipani. Thousands of them die and the slaughter only ends when the defeated Circipani pay a fine of 15,000 pounds of silver. Adam von Bremen summarises the events as follows: Our soldiers returned home triumphant; there was no mention of Christianity, all they cared for was plunder.”

Adam von Bremen goes back to this again and again. In his view it was only the greed of the Saxons that stopped progress of the missionaries.

For Gottschalk this was at least outwardly a success. Fighting alongside his father in Law, the king of Denmark and his lord, Bernhard Billung, the duke of Saxony against the pagans makes him out as a Christian prince and reliable ally. The initial worry that the rebellion would force his strategy to unravel was put to rest. Gottschalk ploughs on in his project to convert his people and become a proper prince.

Adalbert meanwhile had other matters to take care of. We are now in the year 1057 and the imperial government under the regent empress Agnes is starting to get into heavy weather. The first year Agnes could rely in the pope, Victor II who had been the last of her husband’s appointees. Victor had been a relative of Henry III and fiercely loyal to the imperial family. But Victor II passed in 1057 and the inexperienced French empress was stumbling from one political mistake to the next. In 1061 she backed the bishop of Parma as pope Honorius II. Honorius had been part of a backlash against the progress of church reform. He and other prelates found the lifestyle restrictions proposed by the reformers around Peter Damian utterly cumbersome. Supporting the right of bishops to have mistresses and enjoy their wealth went completely against the grain of popular opinion. When Agnes sided with the counterreformers, the empire lost the lead in church reform, which was one of the reasons her son Henry IV ended up in the snow before the walls of Canossa.

Concerned about the implications of that decision the archbishop of Cologne, Anno, intervened. He had the boy king Henry IV kidnapped by luring him on to a ship he had moored in the Rhine River. Henry IV tried to flee by jumping overboard and nearly drowned. Child secured, Anno took over the government and formed a regency council on which Adalbert of Hamburg Bremen was the other prominent member. Adalbert and Anno did not like each other one bit, but shared a love for money and power. The chroniclers, even those who were on Adalbert’s side, tell tales of corruption and greed. Adalbert and Anno plundered the royal treasury, passing wealthy abbeys between each other.

Adalbert’s power increased further as young Henry IV grew older. Henry IV had never forgiven Anno the kidnapping. That made it easy for Adalbert to gain the young king’s confidence. The chronicler Bruno claims that Adalbert had encouraged the young king to give in to all his most base instincts. Henry supposedly always had two or three mistresses at the same time, lusted after his courtiers wives and daughters and even tried to get one of his guys to seduce the empress he had planned to divorce. That latter guy was by the way caught and beaten half to death by the enraged Bertha. Adalbert, instead of challenging his behaviour is supposed to have reassured the  the king that he could always confess later and be absolved and that he would be a fool not to give in to all his urges

Whether any of these stories are true is unclear though increasingly historians tend to the opinion that Henry IV was definitely more prone to sinful behaviour than his all so saintly forebears. What is very much true thou is that Adalbert gained an ever stronger hold over the young king to the point that any of the nobles saw him as a de-facto dictator. Even the Hamburg-based chroniclers like Adam von Bremen and Helmond von Bosau took a dim view of Adalbert’s entanglement in high politics and his sheer limitless ambition and greed.

What might have gone down really badly with the aristocracy was his personal behaviour. In particular in his later years he became too big for his shoes. Applicants, even the most powerful ones would have to wait as much as a week before they are admitted into his presence. And would later find out that Adalbert had made fun of them at dinner with his friends. As Adam von Bremen said, he shed all his virtues he once possessed and brought the hatred of the magnates upon him.

At the beginning of 1066 the opposition to Adalbert had firmed up to the point they were seeking an open confrontation. The king had spent the last three months in Goslar mainly because the princes, including the archbishops of Mainz and Cologne refused to entertain the royal court. That was not only a major logistical problem, as the large retinue had literally eaten every morsel of food within the vicinity of Goslar, but it was also an insult bordering on rebellion. And the princes went one step further when they called an assembly at Trebur, something so far had only ever happened upon the invitation of the king. The purpose of the meeting was to get rid of Adalbert, as “nearly all the princes and bishops of the kingdom were unanimous in their hatred and conspired that he should perish”.

When he hears about this, Henry IV, Adalbert and some of his followers raced to Trebur to confront the princes. Thietmar reports of an event en route to Trebur where the royal guards forced the inhabitants of a village to hand over food. The villagers resisted and the commander of the royal bodyguards was severely wounded. He was brought before the abbot of Hersfeld who refused to grant the man the last rites before he had passed over some property the abbot claimed was his. If a mere abbot can treat a man under royal protection like that, it does not bode well for an archbishop everybody hates.

Upon arrival in Trebur, the assembled magnates tell Henry IV that he has a simple choice. Sack Adalbert or resign the throne. Henry IV is still a teenager at this point, so he twisted and turned and hesitated to make a decision. Adalbert advised the king to pack up the insignia of kingship and flee back to Goslar in the night. Orders are given to load the treasury on to wagons but all that made such a noise that the others woke up and stopped the proceedings. Guards were posted so that nothing untoward could happen.

The next morning the magnates confronted Adalbert and it was only by intervention of the king that he wasn’t struck dead right there. That was the end of Adalbert’s time in the limelight. He did beat a hasty retreat to his diocese protected by the few soldiers the impecunious king could spare.

Adalbert’s ordeal wasn’t over though. As his power was broken, the eternal enemy of the archbishops, the dukes of Saxony came out for their pound of flesh. Magnus Billung at this point only son of the reigning duke took his soldiers and laid siege to the city of Bremen where Adalbert had sought refuge. The threat was such that Adalbert was forced to sign an agreement that handed over almost 2/3rds of the assets of the archbishopric to the Billungs. Adalbert was allowed to leave Bremen and fled to Goslar.

The fall of Adalbert brought his entire political construct to collapse. Led by a man called Kruto the Abodrites rose up against the Christian Gottschalk and had him murdered as was appropriate together with a priest on the altar of a church. This kicked off a general persecution of Christians, in particular the priests. In Ratzeburg two monks were stoned.

Gottschalk’s wife, the daughter of the king of Denmark was pulled out of her palace and dragged naked through the town of Mecklenburg.

But the worst ordeal was reserved for John, the Scotsman who had come down to be bishop of Oldenburg. He was hauled from town to town across the lands of the Abodrites and Lutizi until he arrived at the religious centre of the Wends, a place called Rethra. Thietmar von Merseburg describes the place as follows:

Their holy of holies was a triangular building with three doors, built deep inside a holy forest. The building can be entered by all through two of the three doors. The third door is reserved to a special caste of priests. It opens onto a path that leads to a lake, that according to Thietmar, was “utterly dreadful in appearance”. The outer walls of the building were adorned by marvellous sculpted images of the gods and goddesses. Inside, in the centre was a skilfully made shrine that was standing on a foundation composed of the horns of animals. There were full-sized free-standing sculptures of the gods, each inscribed with their name and clothed with helmets and armour. There was a senior god Thietmar calls Swarozyc, though other sources call him Radogast, the same as the name of the place.

The Lutizi had a priest class whose role was preside over the drawing of the lots to make major decisions. The process was divided in two parts. In part one the priests would throw the lots and divine from how they lay what they believed the correct decision was to be. Next, they would bring in the sacred enormous horse that would walk over the lots and thereby declare its reading of the omens. Only when the priests and the horse agreed would the decision be implemented. If they disagreed the proposal is rejected. And if the omen suggested that internal warfare was imminent, a giant boar would emerge from the lake. All that again is what we are told by a Christian chronicler not a Slavic one.

The temple at Rethra was not the only one, but the most sacred. There were other religious centres for the different tribes in the federation. These tribes would take their decisions, namely about war and peace jointly and unanimously. Unanimous the decision might be, but there was a rule that anyone who opposes the decision in the assembly was to be beaten with rods until he agrees and if he opposes after the assembly, he loses everything, either by burning or confiscation. Clearly it does not always pay to be contrarian.

Part of the decision over war and peace was to determine what offers have to be made to the gods in case of a successful completion of the campaign.

We do not know whether what happened next had been the result of such a pledge. Adam von Bremen tells us that when the Bishop John of Oldenburg refused to renounce his faith, he had first his hands and then his feet cut off. They then decapitated him and threw his body into a ditch by the road. The head was planted on a spike and then sacrificed to Radegast, allegedly the god of hospitality.

After these atrocities the Abodrites consolidated again, this time under the leadership of Kruto, the man who had led them in their rebellion. The duke of Saxony spent the next 12 years trying to suppress Kruto but this time the Slavs were better trained and better equipped. These campaigns failed again and again. Things got so bad that the duke of Saxony was becoming the butt of jokes about his inability to defeat the Slavs.

Seemingly there was a third option for Slavic leaders.

Gottschalk’s sons and his wife survived the carnage. The older one called Butivoj allied with the duke of Saxony and attempted to regain his father’s position. This attempt ended in the picturesque city of Ploen. Ploen is surrounded by lakes and was only accessible by a land bridge. Butivoj had come to the town with an army of auxiliaries provided by duke Magnus of Saxony. To his surprise he found the city empty of enemy soldiers. Though he was warned that this could be a trap, he stayed the night in Ploen. By morning he found the land bridge occupied by a vast army of Abodrites. A quick survey of the town revealed that the retreating enemy had stripped the stores of all foodstuff and, even worse, had taken away all boats. Butivoj’s position was hopeless. He negotiated terms with the Kruto who allowed him and his men to go, provided they leave their weapons and precious items behind. That they accepted. As they came out rumours swirled around the camp that Butivoj’s men had raped the women left behind in Ploen during their short stay. The Abodrites got so enraged they murdered the defenceless Butivoj and his men before Kruto could stop them.

Gottschalk’s wife and younger son, Henry, had fled to Denmark where they had family. Henry was more successful than his brother. With Danish assistance he forced Kruto to let him back in as leader of a part of the Abodrite federation in 1093. Kruto was at that point quite old, but still wasn’t willing to give up neither his throne nor other pleasures of life. He had recently married a young lady called Slavina. According to Helmond von Bosau this lady was young and of a fun-loving disposition. And clearly not interested in spending the rest of her life with a decrepit old man. Or she may have acted out of self-preservation since some of the pagan Slavic tribes practiced Sati, the burning of widows upon the death of their husbands. Either way, when Slavina heard that Kruto planned to kill Henry, she warned him. Henry decided to get on the front foot, invited Kruto to a feast, plied him with immense amounts of drink until the old man was barely able to stand. As the old lord stumbled to his bedchamber, one of Henry’s Danes split his head with an axe.

That elevated Henry to prince of the Abodrites and he married Slavina. The other Slavic tribes, presumably the Lutizi and some disaffected Abodrites raised an army to unseat Henry. However, Henry prevailed with the help of Magnus Billung at the battle of Schmillau in 1093.

With that Henry became a vassal of duke Magnus of Saxony. He chose Liubice as his main residence, a place we know better by its modern name, Lubeck. Under his rule the Abodrites flourished. The economy improved and it seems the tributes had become more acceptable.

Though Henry was a Christian, he did not force his people to convert as his father had done. Being a vassal of the duke of Saxony and not the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, the pressure to do so must have been less. He also remembered his father’s demise in a pagan revolt. So he gave his people religious freedom. They no longer journeyed to the temple at Rethra where bishop John Scotus had found his end because that had been destroyed sometime around these decades. Instead  the centre of the pagan faith was now the sanctuary of Cap Arcona on the island of Rugen.

It is around the time of Henry, whose reign went on until 1127, that the policy towards the marches is changing. Instead of raiding the lands to the east for plunder and slaves, the Saxon leadership is encouraging economic growth and colonisation. This is a decision with far, far reaching consequences.

We will hear more about that, the Abodrites, Henry and his descendants as we go along. But not next week. Next week we catch up with the high politics of the empire, the role the Saxons play in the Investiture Controversy and how once again a Saxon rises to become emperor. I hope you will listen in again.

You may not believe it but if all goes to plan I will still be sailing somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. If you want to follow along, you can do so on a website and app called Marine Traffic. Search for sailing vessel Purple Rain under French flag. Being away has a number of implications, apart from working like a dervish to get enough episodes recorded to cover the time. It means that my marketing efforts trickle down to zero. That is where you my listeners come in. I was wondering whether you would be prepared to help promote the show. Why not send a link to the History of the Germans to a friend or family member who might be interested, write a comment on one of my older posts which tends to revive them or even write your own post on social media. That would be massively appreciated, as would obviously signing up on Patreon at patreon.com/historyofthegermans.

Click here for links to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other listening platforms
Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicCastBoxOvercastPlayer.fmPodcast AddictGoogle PodcastsPocketCasts

Leave a Reply